The Smuggler of Light

  • 1958
  • B.D.Garga
  • 2531 Words

Work on the first Indo-Soviet co-production, Across the Three Seas, took me to the Soviet Union last year. This film, directed by K.A. Abbas and V.Pronin, is about the Russian traveller Afanasi Nikitin, who came to India in the fifteenth century, preceding Vasco da Gama by about twenty years. I stayed in the Soviet Union for eight months, and worked in the Mosfilm studios, where such masters of cinema as Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko had once worked. Today, directors like Romm, Roshal, Chukrai, Alexandrov, Pyrieff and Yutkevtich carry on the traditions of the studio. As a member of the Mosfilm family, even for so short a period, I was able to study Soviet cinema at close quarters, and to share something of the excitement of the grey façade of Moscow’s artistic world. The current controversy was Kalatozov’s extraordinary and striking The Cranes are Flying; the current objects of admiration were Roshal’s The Sisters (after Alexei Tolstoi’s novel The Road to Calvary) and Gerasimov’s version of Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Dawn.

For me, however, the greatest reward was being able to see the second part of Ivan the Terrible - the banned masterpiece that has become a legend. It was a dream come true. When I arrived in the Soviet Union, I drew up a list of the old and new Soviet films that my Indian colleagues and I wanted to see. Ivan headed the list, of course, but it was the last film to come our way. After a good deal of negotiating, a screening was arranged in the tiny projection room generally used by the studio’s chief executive. It had a dozen seats in all, and the screening of the film was kept a closely guarded secret. Somehow, though, word went around, and the little ten-foot-square booth was packed to bursting point. Few people, it appeared, had seen the film in the eleven years that had elapsed since Eisenstein completed it.

I took a pad and pencil with me to scribble some notes with the help of my interpreter. Eyes glued to the screen and hand scratching away frantically in the dark - possibly it was not the best way to watch a film for which I had waited all these years. But I was anxious to conserve as much of the experience as I could.

Ivan the Terrible, Part II is mainly concerned with Ivan’s conflict with the Orthodox Church and the Boyars. The Boyars are gathered around the Boyarina Euphrosinia Staritskaya, who, like a queen bee, directs all the action. The Metropolitian Philip heads the Church’s revolt, and he and Euphrosinia work hand in glove. Euphrosinia, who had earlier (in Part 1) poisoned Ivan’s Tsarina, Anastasia, now plans the murder of Ivan. Her plot misfires, however, and it is her son, Vladimir Andreyevitch, who is killed. The film finishes as the full fury of the ageing Ivan is let loose against the Boyars, the Church and all the deserters who are hindering his work of consolidating the Russian nation.

'We artists forgot those great ideas of art is summoned to serve. We forgot that the main thing in art is its ideological content. In the Second Part of 'Ivan the Terrible' we committed a misrepresentation of historical facts, which made the film worthless and vicious in an ideological sense. We must fully subordinate our creations to the interest of education of the Soviet people.'

Eisenstein's published statement, from 'Culture and Life'

After brief credit titles, the film opens, with a prologue, introducing shots from the first part of the film. The fatigued and lonely Tsar has returned to Moscow, surrounded by his lifeguards - the Oprichniks- ‘in black cloaks, with the broom and Dog’s head emblem on their saddles’. As Ivan murmurs to himself, ‘I have no friends; God is my friend,’ there is a short flashback to his childhood. (This  sequence appeard to be taken from the Prologue to Part I which, according to Marie Seton, Eisenstein removed after editing the first part of Ivan.) He is a boy of eight, his mother has just died; he is preparing for bed. The Boyar Shuisky throws his feet on to the bed. Young Ivan cries. ‘Take your feet off my mother’s bed!’ Laughing malevolently, Shuisky replies: ‘Your mother was a bitch and God knows who your father was…’

The flashback ends, Ivan turns to the Metropolitan Philip and seeks his friendship: ‘I ask you not as a Tsar, but as a friend - leave ne not alone.’ When Philip spurns him, there is a frightening sense of loneliness and dejection. Malyuta, one of the lifelong guards, approaches Ivan” ‘I am your dog. I am your friend. You should prefer your dog to your priest.’

The Tsar of Part II is introspective, Hamlet-like. He mutters to himself: ‘What right have you, Tsar Ivan to judge? And by what right do you wield the sword of retribution?’  He rushes to the bedchamber of the long-dead Anastasia, accompanied by Fedor Basmanov, the first of the lifeguards who was dedicated to his service. Fedor tells Ivan that Anastasia was poisoned by Euphrosinia, but that Ivan himself had handed his wife the cup. Fedor’s words, ‘be firm’, recall the words of Anastasia before she died, and restrain his frenzy.

Outside, in the courtyard:’

In the snow stands Malyuta. On their knees before him Boyars. Three of them, all from the Kolichev family. The sabres whistle and their heads fall.

The Tsar descends to the courtyard:

The Tsar’s eyes do not burn with delight, but sorrow.

The Tsar showers no thanks but doffs his hat.

And croses himself with wide gestures, in memory of the fallen,

And suddenly declares, ‘Too few!’

Over the bodies of the slaughtered Boyars, the Metropolitan Philip swears, ‘The Church is bigger than the Tsar.

Tomorrow I shall bend him, crush him.’

The means of humbling Ivan is a miracle play of the Hebrew children in the firey furnace, which is enacted in the cathedral.

Into the cathedral comes the Tsar.

Philip comes forward to meet the Tsar. He stops before the furnace.

Three lads sing with their crystal voices, passionless, expressionless, without understanding the words, a choir of angelic transparency. And these words fly to meet the Tsar: ‘Why then, shameless Chaldeans, do you serve the iniquitious Tsar? Why then, diabolical  Chaldeans, do you rejoice in a satanic Tsar? - an outrage, a torturer…’

Ivan hears the words in astonishment; but continues as if he has not heard them. He goes to Philip for the benediction. Three times he bows his head; but three times Philip turns away, and the song continues:

‘Now a miracle shalt thou see;
The Lord of the earth
Shall be cast down
By the Lord of the Heavens.’

From the pulpit, Philip launches an attack on Ivan, threatening him with the vengeance of heaven:

‘Bow to the Church, Ivan, and submit! Abolish the lifeguards before it is too late.’
Striking the ground with h his staff, Ivan cries out: ‘From now on I shall become that which you name me!’
A great parchment angel falls from high up in the roof of the cathedral, and the choir breaks out;
‘From Death he saves
From the Flames he rescues,
The Tsar he casts down
And humbles…’

The angel itself falls into the furnace and is consumed.

Part of the worshippers fall on their knees.

The Chaldeans fall down

Evan stands surrounded by fire: ‘Terrible shall I become!’

The Tsar moves quickly; Philip is arrested. With aid from the Church, Euphrosinia at once sets about plotting the murder of Ivan. Pimen, Episcope of Novgorod, appoints his confessor Peter to do the deed. Euphrosinia’s effeminate son, Vladimir Andreyevitch, is as fearful as a mouse when told that it is he who must succeed the Tsar. To comfort him, the terrible old woman holds him to her and sings a lullaby.

The whole of the next sequence, in which Vladimir is prepared to receive the knife intended for Ivan, is in colour. The scene is a banquet. The lifeguards laugh and clap as a masked girl dances in their midst. Ivan, in apparent high spirits, insists upon the terrified Vladimir dressing up in the Tsar’s regalia. Dressed in a bishop’s black robes, Ivan bows before Vladimir and offers him a drink. Somehow, the scene, in which candle in hand, the tipsy, nervous Vladimir leads the procession into the cathedral, reminded me of a Hindu sacrificial ceremony.

Eisensteins sketch for Ivan the Terrible: Part II

From this point the film goes back to black and white. Taking Vladimir for the Tsar, Peter plunges his knife into his back. Vladimir falls on the cathedral floor like a toppled dummy. The succeeding silence is broken by the triumphant voice of the Boyarina Euphrosinia, who, putting her foot on the prostrate body, exclaim: ‘Look people, Ivan is dead.’ When the figure of Ivan, in a bishop’s clothes, suddenly emerges from the group walking in a procession, the Boyarina takes him for a ghost. The assassin, Peter, is led to ian, who asks: ‘Why do you hold him? He only killed the clown!’ Vladimir’s body is dragged away.

From now on, Ivan proceeds to break the cobra head of treason and treachery. Pimen is arrested; Euphrosinia is killed.  The film ends as a monk chants the roll call of Ivan’s victims in the cathedral. ‘Not for myself- but for the motherland,’ mutters the 
Tsar, fatigued but still firm in his purpose.’

Throughout the film you are aware of the inner conflict of Ivan. Like Hamlet, he is torn within himself, the same melancholy, and the same introspection. Yet there is a difference, in that Ivan, always intent upon his cause of uniting Russia, is never dilatory in action. Even so, Eisenstein’s interpretation of the Tsar’s character in Part II was not acceptable to the Soviet authorities in the context of the political situation prevailing at the time that it was completed.

A directive of the Central Committee of the Communist Party regarding the film Great Life (4 September 1946), discussing errors into which such directors ‘as comrades, Lukov, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Kozintsev and Trauberg’ had fallen, said: 'Eisenstein in the second part of Ivan the Terrible displayed his ignorance of historical facts by portraying the progressive army of the ‘oprichniks’ as a band of degenerates similar to the American Ku Klux Klan, and Ivan the Terrible, a man of strong will and character, as a man of no will and little character, something like Hamlet.'

Ivan The Terrible, Film Still.

The film was intended as a trilogy. The entire scheme was conceived before the Nazi invasion, but shooting did not begin until the beginning of 1943 at Alma Ata, in the Urals, where the Moscow and Leningrad studios had been evacuated. The Khazak Government placed their new  Palace of Culture at Eisenstein’s disposal.  Most of the shooting had to be done at night, since during the day electric power had to be diverted to munitions factories. Eisenstein wrote, designed and directed; Prokofiev wrote the score; Eduard Tisse (who left Eisenstein during the course of the work) and Andrei Moskvin were the photographers. Part I was released in December 1944, and was a great success. Most of Part II was shot at the same time as Part I, and the rest during the winter of 1944-45.  Eisenstein did not finish editing Part II until February 1946.  On the day that the work was completed, Eisenstein collapsed - struck by the first of the severe heart attacks that ended his film work- at a party given to celebrate the award of the Stalin First Class Prize for Ivan the Terrible, Part One. He partially recovered, to learn of the official disapproval his film had aroused.

Eisenstein set me a whole series of complex tasks. He demanded that I develop and bring out Tsar Ivan’s character synchronizing the process with the development of the film’s action… spread over more than twenty years of the Tsar’s life. I had to show the complex process that went on in his mind.

Nikolay Cherkasov

Eisenstein proposed a revision of the second part of Ivan. He and Cherkasov secured an interview with Stalin in the Kremlin, and Stalin gave his support to a project to re-shoot certain scenes in Ivan and to resume work on the third part of the trilogy, which was to be in  colour. Eisenstein, however, never recovered sufficiently to resume shooting. On 11 February 1948, a few days after his fiftieth birthday, he died, alone in his flat in Potylika, still at work on his study of colour cinematography. Eisenstein, in laying bare the innermost recesses of his mind, has succeeded in creating a ‘whole’ Ivan.  

The print I saw was ten or eleven years old, and the colour sequence had faded badly. Enough remained, however, to show the bold and imaginative use of colour that Eisenstein intended. But it is not just the colour, or the masterly compositions of the mise en scene, or even the ideological content that make Ivan the Terrible, Part Two so memorable. As the major creation of the great master of Soviet cinema, the film is monumental from every point of view. Many people in the Soviet Union expressed to me the hope that the film may be made available for exhibition abroad. It would indeed be a major tragedy if it were to remain unseen, hidden away in the vaults of the Soviet Film Archive.


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